Sheriff’s traffic cop leaves drivers with little to gripe about
Along with meter maids and IRS auditors, traffic cops may be the public servants most reviled just for doing their jobs. So perhaps it’s inevitable that even the best will get a few citizen complaints filed against them from time to time.
But when Los Angeles County sheriff’s supervisors recently checked the numbers over the last 20 years for one of their veteran traffic cops, what they found shocked them. The number of complaints?
Zero. None. Nada.
Deputy Elton Simmons’ bosses say such a record is near-impossible, that even good cops can get a few a year.
The hulking, black-booted Simmons attributes his lack of complaints to showing simple respect. “Just treat people right, give a smile,” Simmons says. “It’s never ‘Do you know why I stopped you?’ It’s ‘Hey, how are you doing today?’”
Simmons originally came to California as a young man to work for Hughes Aircraft, but cop shows like “CHiPs” stoked his interest in becoming a motor deputy. “You’d see it on TV and I was like ‘I want to do that.’”
Now 53, his mustache graying, he’s one of the department’s most seasoned motor cops. For years, he’s patrolled the streets of La Mirada, cracking down on bad drivers — always careful, he says, to try to make doling out the costly moving violations as pleasant as possible.
His easygoing manner was cultivated by an uncle back home in Louisiana, a pastor who instilled in Simmons the motto “Do good, be good, treat people good.”
Simmons says he thinks about that mantra every time he’s parked in one of his hiding spots, waiting for the next violator. “I tell the rookies, just do the right thing and you don’t have to worry about too many things,” he explains.
Simmons’ approach, his bosses say, can keep what could be ugly moments under control. The motor cop described recently pulling over a particularly frazzled young man for speeding. “He was shaking like a leaf,” Simmons recalled.
He gave the youth some time alone, meanwhile scanning his driver’s license looking for small talk fodder. When Simmons returned to the car window, he changed the subject: “Your license says you’re 280,” he told the driver, referring to his weight. “You’re not 280.”
Almost immediately, the man about to be hit with a ticket was proudly telling how he’d lost 100 pounds through a strict regimen of swimming and healthy eating.
“All of a sudden the shaking is gone,” Simmons said at the station the next day.
“He still got his ticket though, right?” his sergeant interrupted.
“He still got his ticket,” Simmons said.
Civil, he says of his style, but never soft.
Still, even his patience is sometimes tested.
One motorist he stopped for talking on a cellphone said he had one wish for the deputy: Get hit by a car. A lot of cops, one of Simmons’ bosses admitted, would have taken that remark as an invitation to tack on an extra infraction or two. Simmons chose to keep cool.
“I said, ‘Well, if you’re gonna make a wish, it’s not gonna come true.’ He’s a human, I’m a human,” he said.
On a recent summer day, Simmons was hiding from the sun — and passing motorists — under a shade tree along a sprawling stretch of road in La Mirada. His black boots were planted firmly on the asphalt, a sheriff’s black-and-white bike steadied in between. (One fact is evident: Motor cops have to be tall or else it’s hard to keep their bikes balanced while idling.)
Several motorists sped by, but Simmons waited for an especially deserving one before pulling out. It was a very nervous 19-year-old named Ismael Natera.
“I want you to slow down, OK?” Simmons warned in a fatherly way.
Maybe it was because Natera was a teenager sweaty with nerves, or maybe it was because he was late for work, but the youth got off with a warning. “I’ll let you on your way,” Simmons drawled.
“He cut me some slack,” Natera said afterward, growing even later to work but nevertheless willing to sing Simmons’ praises. “I’ve been pulled over before and some cops have ... different attitudes.”
Simmons’ next target was a woman behind the wheel of a shiny Lexus SUV.
Legs spread like stilts, leaning casually into her window, Simmons was not so forgiving this time, tagging her with a ticket that would carry a hefty fine. This driver was less inclined to praise Simmons afterward.
Capt. Patrick Maxwell said the deputy has long had a reputation at the Norwalk station as a squeaky clean mentor. But even with that, Maxwell said, he was shocked after reviewing Simmons’ personnel file recently.
Maxwell confronted him: “When’s the last time you had a complaint?”
“I really don’t know,” Simmons responded.
As it turned out, it was in 1992.
The streak without a complaint is particularly surprising because grievances arise from any number of perceived affronts, including rudeness, racism or simply on policy criticisms. And these days, complaints don’t have to be made in person. They can be shot off online, making Simmons’ record all the more remarkable.
His record aside, Simmons insists he is far from a pushover. He believes tickets save lives.
One woman he cited for driving without a seat belt ran into him years later. Simmons says she shook his hand and thanked him because she had been in a wreck some time later and that time had her seat belt on.
Simmons acknowledges sparing drivers who seem to be in a genuinely bad place — that teenager late to work or a frazzled woman recently who was on her cellphone because she was talking to her divorce attorney.
But for drivers who offer up phony excuses, the deputy says he’s unforgiving.
Some common pleas he hears: I’m not from the area (“which doesn’t mean anything”), Some car cut me off (“A lot of times drivers don’t realize I’ve been watching; there wasn’t another car”) and I need to go to the bathroom (“So?”). A word to the wise, Simmons adds: Slamming on your brakes when you drive by a motor cop with a speed gun also doesn’t work. The devices detect speeds from more than a football field away.
His favorite response when drivers argue is to point out they’ll have their chance to plead their case in court. This isn’t meant to be snarky, he says — sometimes he’s wrong.
He recently pulled over a driver talking on an unusually fat phone. Though the motorist didn’t argue during the stop, he did show up in court, where he explained to the judge that he had actually been talking on a Dictaphone.
When the judge asked Simmons if he was sure the device was a cellphone, the deputy admitted he wasn’t. “It did look kind of thick to me,” Simmons acknowledged.
The driver explained that he hadn’t protested at the time because Simmons had pulled him over once before.
The cop had been so courteous, the man said, that he didn’t want to cause him any trouble.
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